They call this the most wonderful time of the year. Pictures of lights and gifts and Christmas trees and candles for the menorahs swirl through our heads. But that isn’t how it goes for everyone. In fact, in reality, this time of year is often one of the hardest for many people. It gets colder and the days get shorter. We’re all dealing with a lot at the end of the year, with mental roadblocks such as seasonal depression only adding to the stress. Holiday music generally doesn’t account for that—sure, the holly-jolly is great, but it can be important to remind listeners that it’s OK not to feel that way. That’s exactly what Ziemba does with her new album, Unsubtle Magic.
Ziemba is the alias of songwriter, producer, vocalist, and pianist, René Kladzyk. Her latest project highlights the sadness that comes with this time of year, using the tradition of the “Christmas album” to subvert those very tropes. She has songs called “Only Lonely Christmas” and “Fear,” which highlight these very negative feelings toward the holiday season. In “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” she says, “I’ll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams.” It shows a pretty bleak reality of the holiday for many of us—we all want to be with family, but many of us can’t be. She sings about dreading seeing her family and being too nervous to go home.
The album is based on Kladzyk’s recent holiday experiences. Her father passed away in 2019 around this time of year, and according to Kladzyk, Christmas was his favorite time of year. Now that he’s gone, the holidays are understandably hard for her and her family to deal with. With this background in mind, there’s a unique realness to most of the songs on Unsubtle Magic, which highlights the pain and stress that can come with the holidays and with family. It’s beautiful and vulnerable, and Kladzyk’s voice shines wonderfully throughout the album. Unsubtle Magic is thought-provoking and comforting; it’s a much-needed reminder that just because the world is telling us to be OK, that doesn’t mean we necessarily are.